Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Chris Port Blog #135. Treatment Outline for War Dogs of the Pacific

Chris Port, 2010

There is a fascinating documentary (titled War Dogs of the Pacific) which tells a drama-rich story. Apparently, during WW2, as the marine divisions island-hopped their way towards Japan they had ‘War Dog’ units attached to them. These ‘war dogs’ were family pets from Stateside, volunteered by their owners to help the war effort. If they passed a basic aptitude test, the dog would be relinquished by the owner (often a weeping little girl) and sent to dog boot camp for training. There, they would meet their trainer and new master for the duration of the war. The handler would send letters back to the owner, often with photos. These photos show happy dogs, looking boldly at the camera, tongue hanging, or gazing adoringly at their master.

The dogs were retrained in a new role in much the same way as their human masters. In peace time, it is the job of men to be protective and caring and it is the job of dogs to be pacific pets (violence by men is usually punished by prison; violence in dogs is usually punished by death – being ‘put to sleep’). In war, men are retrained to use their minds and bodies to kill other human beings with disciplined obedience and emotional detachment. And yet, emotions will not be denied. Fear, grief, comradeship and a deeply platonic love find their way through men’s indoctrinated defences. Dogs, of course, are never happier than when completely devoted to their master. 

As men and dogs trained together in the arts of war, very deep bonds formed. Man and dog were utterly reliant upon each other for their lives. The dogs learned quickly through repetition and correction to ‘alert’ when their superior smell and vision detected the presence of something ‘out of place’ in the jungle, to watch over their masters as they slept in foxholes, and to go into caves and tunnels to rabbit out enemy soldiers. When the dogs graduated boot camp they were commissioned into the Marine Corps with the rank of PFC (Private First Class) and shipped out to the Pacific Theatre.

At first, the other Marine ‘grunts’ laughed at the dog units, howling and barking with affectionate derision as they went up to the front. But, very quickly, the fighting soldiers developed a deep respect and affection for their canine comrades. As tools, they were incredibly useful, saving many mens lives. No Marine unit with a dog was ever successfully ambushed by the Japanese in a campaign full of concealed bunkers.

But it was more than that. The dogs displayed a courage and devotion under fire that would earn a man a medal. The handlers were used to constantly talking to their dogs to build-up communication skills, but of course they began to talk to their dogs as soul-mates. What other creature in such a hellish place would listen with such perfect, uncritical love? A war in the jungle is one of the most unsentimental places on earth, and yet sentiment found a way.

It was not unusual to see a dog handler opening up a can of C-rations, explaining carefully to his dribbling but self-restrained dog that there wasn’t enough food for both of them, and then methodically feed the dog the whole meal while he went hungry. When a dog-handler was wounded, the dog would often grab the arm of the corpsman in its jaws with a low warning growl. The handler would reassure the dog to allow the corpsman to patch him up, and the dog would relax (but not release) its grip. If the handler was killed in action, the dog would stand guard over his master’s body, sometimes for days, not allowing anyone near until hunger and thirst broke him.

The Japanese began to fear the effectiveness of these war dogs and targeted them. If a dog was shot, his master would often be inconsolable, weeping with grief, muttering over and over again “They shot my dog”. Marines would carry their wounded dogs back to a canine field hospital where they would try to patch them up and return them to active duty.

Eventually, when the war ended, the Marines decided to destroy all their War Dogs. The reasoning was that, after being trained for war, it would not be possible to retrain them for peace and return them as family pets. However, the commanding officer of the dog unit refused to order the dogs’ destruction. Instead, just as men had to retrain themselves for peace, so the handlers retrained their dogs, de-militarizing them back to pets. And, in a sense, the dogs helped their handlers to retrain as loving family men again.

Because there had always been that deep bond of love between dog and master, the retraining went well. Out of 500 dogs, only 4 failed to retrain properly and had to be destroyed. In many cases, the handlers would write to the original owners asking if they could adopt the dog. For those that were returned to their original owners, the handler would often write to ask if he could visit the dog one last time. Even after 60 years, these now old men still get tearful when they talk about their war dog.

Possible narrative structure, style and themes

The main danger with this project is sentimentalism. Due to the subject matter, it is impossible to avoid. Therefore, it is must be tightly controlled and timed for maximum devastating emotional impact while allowing a cool, bitter-sweet reflective tone to emerge.

I would suggest a tragi-comic redemption narrative. The first act, recruiting and training the dogs, lends itself to comedy and postmodern bootcamp homages (The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes, The Boys in Company C, Full Metal Jacket, etc.). Also, other man/dog tales with a tragic edge like Jack London’s Call of the Wild.

Plenty of scope for comic moments - dogs gazing politely and blankly at their new masters, fucking up their new military tasks, etc. Multi-strand narrative, following different dogs and handlers, watching the forging of deep relationships out of unpromising beginnings. Focus on one main protagonist and his dog – both emotional misfits in some way. Follow some conventions of rom com – true love starts with antipathy. As various obstacles are overcome, the bond strengthens.

Shipping out to the Pacific, the narrative changes gear. Now, it’s no longer a game, and the danger is horribly real. Stylistic references switch to the hyper-realism of Saving Private Ryan, dogs with their intestines blown out, screaming and whimpering in pain. Men and dogs that the audience have learned to know and care deeply about are ripped away with horribly unsentimental brutality. Who will live and who will die? Dogs’ characters should be strong and individual – we care about them as characters now.

Then, reference Terrence Malik’s The Thin Red Line, moments of incongruous gentleness and beauty in the green slaughterhouse.

We build up to some action climax (maybe the taking of a particular enemy strong-point – or the ‘mad-minute’ repelling of a human wave banzai-charge).

Finally, the ‘coming home’ redemptive segment. Focus on main protagonist and dog.  They both rediscover their gentle playfulness. Heart-break, of course. The handler returns the dog to the little girl and walks off into the sunset alone.

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